When Re-Branding Isn’t

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It was recently reported that the local franchisee of an international fitness center chain would discontinue that franchising agreement.  The reason?  So it could launch and operate health clubs under a new name.

The CEO of this new operation told a local publication, “This is simply a re-branding and signage change.”

By my view, he’s half right. The signs have been changed, certainly, and the walls have been painted. Re-named? Yes, that, too. Re-branded? Not quite. And the distinction is an important one.

Past visitors to this space may recall that I define a brand as “your total experience, as perceived by those you seek to motivate.” In other words, your brand is not the name on your sign or your letterhead; it’s every action you take, big or small, that creates an experience or a perception for your customers. Put another way, your brand is everything you do.

I’ve been a member of this gym for nearly four years, so I’ve seen it before and after the “re-branding.” I remain a member as a matter of convenience – the gym is a five-minute drive from my home. Location is, of course, one very important factor in the overall brand experience of a fitness club.

The experience inside this gym, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Machines are left in a state of disrepair for weeks or even months. The free weight area is often in disarray. If you have a limited amount of time to devote to your workout – and most of us do – you don’t want to waste it looking for this weight or that.

Then there’s the “cardio theatre,” in which members might ostensibly alleviate the boring repetition of most cardio exercise by watching a TV equipped with cables. Sounds great! But in practice, finding a station in which the cardio equipment, the TV screen and the remote control are all in working order is nearly impossible. On the day this column was written, nine of the 24 cardio stations at my location failed to meet this most basic standard.

Meanwhile, the folks running the place encourage members to act as their salespeople. Around the time of the name change, I received a mailer telling me that if I just bring in a friend for a visit to the club, I will get a T-shirt. Apparently, they have data that shows that people who regularly attend gyms really, really need another T-shirt.

If you want your members to sell for you, there’s a better way: Create a superior experience. Do that, and you won’t have to offer incentives (a.k.a. bribes). Word-of-mouth will be more powerful than any ad you run, and the resulting referrals will be the easiest prospects to convert to new members. You might even find they start asking if they can buy T-shirts from you. Forget free!

In November, the fitness center CEO told the Cincinnati Business Courier, “It’s business as usual. Nothing will change for our members.” And that’s too bad, really, because a name change provides a great opportunity to take a look at everything you’re doing – your total brand experience, from A to Z – and improve that which needs to be improved.

Time will tell whether this will just be a name change and a paint job, or a true re-branding. Meanwhile, the rest of us would do well to remember: Our brand is everything we do. That involves a total experience. A coat of paint, a new name or logo – these are simply not enough to meaningfully change perceptions.

Of course, at That Branding Thing, I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness. So in the next installment, I’ll introduce a simple tool that can be used by the fitness center – or your brand, naturally – to create a better experience.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on February 8, 2008, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.